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Would students be safer if they carried guns?

Van Zandt:  Four months after  the Virginia Tech shootings, some say students would be safer if they carried guns to school, while others maintain campuses should remain a gun-free environment.  I totally agree that a number of armed students, faculty or staff on the campus could have made a difference during the Tech killing spree, but I’m not sure the difference would have resulted in a better outcome.

On April 16, a major university and a nation stood still in an attempt to understand the devastation that was levied by one angry man with two guns.  That morning, 23-year-old Virginia Tech senior Cho Seung-Hui killed 33 and wounded 29 in an act of rage that still defies explanation.  In the aftermath of those killings, many thought to themselves, “If only someone could have stopped him sooner…”

As students at Virginia Tech prepare for a new school year, some believe they would be safer if they were legally allowed to carry guns along with members of the facutly and staff. It has been suggested that had just one student or faculty member had a gun, Cho could have been stopped before his total number of victims reached 62, thus saving perhaps dozens of lives. But others believe that the ensuing crossfire between Cho and armed students could have cost even more lives. They think our colleges and universities should be islands of learning in the sea of violence that seems to grip our nation on a weekly basis.  

I do not see this as a Second Amendment right to bear arms issue. I see it as a need and a safety issue. Do students really need to carry a gun on campus for personal protection?

Notwithstanding the slaughter at Tech, the murder rate on college campuses is 0.28 per 100,000 people, far less than the overall U.S. murder rate of 5.5 per 100,000. This means that a non-student is at least 20 times more likely to be a murder victim than a student at college. That is the way it should be. Our institutions of higher education should be places where people of all backgrounds come together to debate and discuss different ideas, and, if they've not learned otherwise, a place where they can be taught to disagree without using violence to make their point and get their way. Students need to fight for their ideas and beliefs, ones honed over the blazing fires of verbal discourse and debate.  But their fight should be with words, not bullets.

Guns on campus seem to increase other risks
Within the last decade the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a random sample of over 15,000 undergraduate students from 130 different four-year colleges. At that time 3.5 percent of the student respondents indicated they had a firearm at college. This same study concluded that students with guns on campus were more likely to engage in binge drinking, to have DUI offenses, and were more likely than other students to be injured severely enough to require medical attention while in college. Overall, the study found that students with guns on campus were more likely than those without guns to engage in activities that put them and others at risk.

Were all states to allow guns to be carried on campus, I believe the danger for everyone at such schools would increase. We know, for example, that approximately 25,000 college students attempt suicide and 1,1000 more are successful.

We also know that roughly 90 percent of individuals who attempt suicide with a firearm are successful. If we do the math, as college teaches us to do, the success rate of college suicide could increase dramatically if guns were easier to obtain. Guns that were bought, borrowed or stolen, perhaps from a roommate or from the desk of an absent-minded professor who let students know that he or she had a loaded gun in their office desk drawer.

If a student or a college employee is able to turn to a readily available gun as a means of conflict resolution rather than talking or walking away, the danger to all increases exponentially.

Put yourself, for example, in the shoes of the campus police officer, administrator, instructor or janitor who must confront a student who could possibly be carrying a gun under his sweatshirt. The tension between such individuals is automatically ratcheted up to a much higher level, one that could needlessly impact on the dialogue between the two.

Shoot or don’t shoot decisions not that simple
During my time at the FBI, one encounter that sticks to my mind: I crossed a darkened basement floor, one step at a time, I strained in the dim light to see if an escaped killer was there and hiding. Would he attack when I came into his sights?

In the dank basement was an old cardboard fireplace , something left over from perhaps a previous Christmas play. I grabbed the faded red cutout chimney and flipped it back.

A man came at me from behind the cardboard. He seemed to fill the room in front of me.  I stepped back, pointing my .357 at the middle of his chest.

I yelled, “FBI. Freeze.”

He did.

Later, as I was driving him to jail, he asked another FBI Agent, “Who was that guy in the basement, the one that was going to kill me?”

I'm glad he understood that I would shot him, and I am also glad that I didn't have to. I might have been justified in shooting him under the circumstances. But I didn't have to, so I didn't.

I did a tour of duty in Vietnam, took years of “Shoot / Don't Shoot” courses, and have over two decades as an FBI agent. All that went into my decision not to shoot. It was a decision I had to make in a fraction of a second and one that I would need to make again.

But I had a lot of experience informing my instincts and decisions. In any case, shootings involving FBI agents can be somewhat rare. They’re rarer still on college campuses.

Would it have been “better” at Virginia Tech on April 17?
I totally agree that a number of armed students, faculty or staff on the Tech campus could have made a difference during Cho’s killing spree, but I’m not sure the difference would have resulted in a better outcome.  Would the armed students know who among those with guns was the real shooter that needed to be stopped? How should the police officers who flooded the campus looking for the shooter have responded when confronted by one or two or 50 students and others wielding guns as they ran helter skelter across the campus quad? Could the situation, as terrible as it was, have become even more tragic were innocents to have shot other innocents in the haste of a moment, trying to identify the real shooter as they looked down the barrel of their own gun while their heart beat so loud they couldn't hear themselves think?

I think our schools would be far safer if we work first to exclude firearms from campus.  Second, we need to work to identify the students at risk such as Cho, and get those students psychological help to develop appropriate anger management and conflict resolution skills.  If necessary, those students need to be removed from campus.

It’s true that some shooters come from off campus, drawn to a school because the shooter wants to assault and murder in a target-rich environment. Such a shooter may also believe that no one would be capable of stopping his horrible actions, much like the monster that killed the five brave young women at the Amish school in Lancaster, Pa., in October 2006. In these rare outsider situations, it should first be the job of the school to keep such individuals out, and the job of law enforcement, not armed students, to tactically intervene when needed.

Many people are fully capable of making good decisions concerning the firearm they carry on their person, but the chances are really slim that they would ever need to fire a weapon in self-defense or to save others.  I just do not think the statistics, even when faced with a once-every-40-year situation like Cho at Virginia Tech justify the increased danger that allowing guns on campus could create. Your second amendment rights are safe; just don’t take your gun to school.

Clint Van Zandt is a former FBI Agent, behavioral profiler and hostage negotiator as well as an MSNBC Analyst. His web site provides readers with security related information.